Aug 1 1990

No Place for Labor on PBS?

Is it possible to open up public television to regular programming about labor issues? That’s a question Elsa Rassbach has been trying to answer for more than a decade.

Rassbach is an independent filmmaker who has been working since 1973 to launch Made in U.S.A., a series of dramas based on labor history. The first installment in the series, The Killing Floor, was released six years ago to general critical acclaim. The second installment, Lost Eden, is on hold.

The problem, of course, is financial. Independent producers for the Public Broadcasting Service often rely on corporations as a major funding source, but that is unavailable to a hard-hitting labor series. Unions are the obvious alternative, but there the Made in U.S.A. series ran up against the PBS double standard: While corporations are free to finance pro-business shows like Adam Smith’s Money World, Louis Rukeyser’s Wall $treet Week and Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, labor contributions are another story.

“There’s a difference between an underwriter with a general interest in the program’s subject and one with a specific interest in it,” then-PBS president Lawrence Grossman said in 1980 (New York Times, 2/13/80). Apparently business has only a general interest in business, while labor has a specific interest in labor: Grossman limited labor contributions to Made in U.S.A. to $50,000, 0.3 percent of the series’ projected $15 million budget.

Faced with criticism, PBS loosened its restrictions, allowing labor contributions to The Killing Floor as long as they did not make up a majority of the funding; a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities made up much of the rest. The program, focusing on black laborers in the Chicago stockyards, aired as part of PBS‘s American Playhouse drama showcase and received strongly favorable reviews. “This pilot certainly makes a strong case for an extended series,” wrote New York Times TV critic John O’Connor (4/10/84).

But the same funding problems obstructed the second installment, Lost Eden, which was to deal with union organizing at the Lowell textile mills in Massachusetts. Initially, the project was promised $400,000 from American Playhouse, which has become PBS‘s only source of funding for fiction programs. But American Playhouse pulled out, saying the script was “too melodramatic.” Perhaps coincidentally, the chair of Boston’s WGBH, the parent station of American Playhouse, is James Lowell, the heir of the textile concern involved in the story.

The controversy led PBS president Bruce Christensen to send a list of 22 PBS “labor-oriented programs” to steelworkers’ union president Lynn Williams, who had criticized PBS. Williams replied:

While there are many fine programs on your list, few people who are familiar with them would call more than two or three of the programs you cite “labor-oriented.” For example, you include a Native American dance program, a drama about the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, many programs about farmers, Our Town, Native Son, Go Tell It on the Mountain, etc.

Not a single one of the films you list focuses on the workplace. None are about the labor movement, unions or labor history. Not one is about working women…. We remain totally unconvinced of public television’s responsiveness to our concerns.

To get a more accurate look at what resources PBS actually devotes to issues involving labor and workers, the City University of New York (CUNY) Committee for Cultural Studies studied two years’ worth of PBS prime-time programming. The findings: During 1988 and 1989, 27 hours of programs were offered that “addressed the lives and concerns of workers as workers,” as opposed to 253 hours that focused on the upper classes. Of the 27 hours on working people, 19 were about British workers, leaving 20 minutes a month about U.S. workers on U.S. public TV.


Made To Be Broken

(from EXTRA!, March ’93)

PBS rules are supposedly designed to prevent conflicts of interest in the production of programming. Anti-establishment programs are rigidly scrutinized: PBS execs objected to Made in U.S.A., a dramatic series on the history of labor, because it received money from unions; they rejected the Academy Award-winning documentary Deadly Deceptions, because it was funded and produced by the same entity, the non-profit group INFACT.

But the rules seem to be flexible enough to allow PBS to air a series on the history of the New York Times that is funded by the Times and produced “in association with the New York Times.” The first installment, James Reston: The Man Millions Read, aired Jan. 8, and unsurprisingly treated the Times‘ retired pundit with “admiration and respect,” according to the New York Times‘ own review (1/8/93). The director and producer, Susan Dryfoos, is a member of the Sulzberger family, which owns the New York Times.

If it seems strange for “public” television to broadcast films about a for-profit company that are paid for by that company and made by one of the company’s owners — then you probably think the same rules apply to powerful corporations as to everyone else.